In February 1937, Union President Dixon Ryan Fox invited the campus community to gather in Memorial Chapel after classes on a Saturday morning to commemorate the College’s 143rd anniversary.
“In celebrating Founders Day for the first time, Union College not only recognizes the practical value of historical perspective but also what may be called the sentimental value of retrospective pride and gratitude,” he said. “We can well afford an hour or two a year to contemplate our early history and its meaning for us.”
Continuing a tradition started by Fox, the campus community assembled in Memorial Chapel Thursday to honor its 225th birthday.
“This is a great opportunity to think about the past and reflect,” President David R. Harris told the audience in his greeting. “At the same time, we should think about where were are going and our future.”
In addition to its 225th anniversary, the College is also celebrating the 125th anniversary of engineering, the 100th anniversary of WRUC, the school’s radio station; and the 50th anniversaries of terms abroad and co-education.
Harris encouraged the crowd to attend Friday’s public launch of “Powering Union: The Campaign for Multiple Tomorrows,” the largest and most ambitious capital campaign in the school’s history.
In her keynote address, Kelly Williams ’86 intertwined the story of Union’s founding from its roots as The Schenectady Academy to her own origins as a female founder and the responsibility that comes with it. Williams has enjoyed a 30-year career as an entrepreneur in private market investing, most notably as a founder of the Customized Fund Investment Group in 1999, which grew to over $30 billion before she led its sale in 2014.
Well known for her commitment to diversity on Wall Street and for establishing a market-leading diverse manager investment practice, Williams has paved for the way others to succeed.
“The founder is obviously a visionary behind the enterprise, but she also is responsible for caring and stewarding the hopes and dreams for the future for all who come along for the ride,” she said.
A Union trustee since 2008, Williams was the first in her family to attend college. She said she credits her time at Union, from which she holds a degree in political science and mathematics, as the key to her success. She shared two specific experiences that had a profound impact on her life.
The first was when she went on a term abroad to Japan led by History and Political Science Professor Emeritus Donald Thurston.
“Living abroad in country where I was the minority gave me a whole new perspective,” Williams said. “It made me understand the importance of being open, being kind and looking for ways to connect with people who are different and to understand the other person’s point of view. The ability to see the other side of the argument became my superpower.”
Another pivotal moment occurred in a class taught by Charles Gati, professor of political science emeritus. Williams was a top student but rarely spoke in class.
“He demanded that I join the conversation,” she said, “and I’ve never looked back.”
In closing, Williams told the audience that the origins of Union continue to resonate today.
“I believe the founders did their best to make room for a future that included all of us, and sought to create an environment where people with vastly different opinions but of infinite goodwill, could help shape other’s views and encourage each other to succeed while developing new fellowship,” she said.
One of the most moving moments occurred when the audience gave a standing ovation to Erika Nelson-Mukherjee, an associate professor of German during the presentation of the Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The prize was created by David I. Stillman ’72, Abbott Stillman ’69 and Allan Stillman in honor of Abraham Stillman, father and grandfather. It is given annually to a faculty member to encourage outstanding teaching. Nelson-Mukherjee joined Union in 2007. Normally presented at Convocation, it was delayed while Nelson-Mukherjee grieved the death of her husband, Neil, after a long illness.
The award was followed by an uplifting performance of “Seasons of Love,” from Rent, by The Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir and the Union College Choir. Members of both groups were strategically located in pews around the Chapel before working their way to the front for a hand-clapping performance.
Also at Founders Day, Zachary Rittner ’12, a biology and environmental science teacher at Scotch Plains – Fanwood High School in New Jersey, was presented with the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. Named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York State’s first superintendent of public education, the award is given to secondary school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.
Rittner was nominated by Maryam Ramjohn ’23, an environmental science major.
The celebration opened with remarks from Kathleen LoGiudice, College marshal and professor of biology; Robert Bertagna ’85, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees; Mary Carroll ’86, the Dwane W. Crichton Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; and Simon Bohn ’20, president of Student Forum.
The hour-long ceremony concluded with “Ode to Old Union,” led on organ by Dianne McMullen, professor of music and College organist, and a jazzy singalong of “Happy Birthday” with Max Caplan ’16 on piano.
Founded in 1795, Union was the first college chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York.